Through the efforts of a friendly librarian I know, I recently was able to check out a Bill James collection from 1989, This Time Let’s Not Eat the Bones: Bill James without the Numbers. There’s some good stuff in there about 80s baseball, much of it still of interest and still applicable today.
But some of it is just plain fun as a trip down memory lane with the irascible James as a guide. I’ll share some of it over the next few weeks, until the book’s due back at Bezazian Library.
So here’s James on Lonnie “Skates” Smith, writing in 1986, when Smith had been a Royal for a few years:
I wouold try to tell you what a bad outfielder Lonnie is, expect that I confess that I would never have believed it myself if somebody had tried to tell me. I will say, though, that the real cost of Lonnie’s defense is not nearly as great as the psychic impact of it. He makes you wail and gnash your teeth a lot, but he doesn’t really cost you all that many runs.
One reason for that is that he recovers so quickly after her makes a mistake. You have to understand that Lonnie makes defensive mistakes every game, so he knows hot to handle it. Your average outfielder is inclined to panic when he falls down chasing a ball in the corner; he may just give up and set there a while, trying to figure it out. Lonnie has a pop-up slide perfected for the occasion.
Another outfielder might have no idea where the ball was when it bounded off his glove. Lonnie can calculate with the instinctive astrophysics of a veteran tennis player where a ball will land when it skips off the heel of his glove, what the angle of glide will be when he tips it off the webbing, what the spin will be when the ball skids off the thumb of the mitt.
Many players can kick a ball behind them without ever knowing it. Lonnie can judge by the pitch of the thud and the subtle pressure through his shoe in which direction and how far he has projected the sphere.
He knows exactly what to do when a ball spins out of his hand and flies crazily into a void on the field. He knows when it is appropriate for him to scamper after the ball and when he needs to back up the man who will have to recover it.
He has experience in these matters; when he retires he will be hired to come to spring training and coach defensive recovery and cost containment. This is his specialty, and he is good at it.